VIRGINIA WATER – Europe’s 12 Ryder Cup players delivered a mixed bag of scores in the first round of the BMW PGA Championship.
None of them were better than Marcus Helligkilde.
The No. 232-ranked Dane made seven birdies in a nine-hole stretch then closed with three in a row to shoot an 8-under 64 and take a two-stroke lead at the European tour’s flagship event on Thursday.
Of the Europeans heading to Rome for the Ryder Cup in two weeks, Matt Fitzpatrick (66), Ludvig Åberg (68) and Tyrrell Hatton (68) posted the best rounds at Wentworth.
Nicolai Hojgaard, who earned the final pick of captain Luke Donald ahead of Adrian Meronk, was at the other end of the scale in shooting 76.
Then there were Europe’s two big guns, No. 2-ranked Rory McIlroy and No. 3-ranked Jon Rahm, who labored their way around the West Course and shot 72 and 71, respectively, on a glorious day at the European tour’s headquarters where the upcoming Ryder Cup remained a glaring subplot.
“I think we are all a little bit in the Ryder Cup mindset,” said No. 4-ranked Viktor Hovland, who will be one of Donald’s key players at the Marco Simone club from Sept. 29-Oct. 1 and shot 69 in his first round at Wentworth.
“It is a little bit weird to have to have two thoughts going at the same time.”
Hovland played in a heavyweight group containing McIlroy and Åberg, mixing two established stars with another with the golfing world at his feet.
The youngster took the lead role.
Åberg, a 23-year-old Swede who turned pro in June and has already won on the European tour, showed once again that the hype around him is justified heading into his upcoming debut appearance in the Ryder Cup.
One bad swing cost Åberg the chance of a really low round. He pulled his tee shot out-of-bounds at the par-5 17th hole, which he had reached on 5 under after rolling in five straight birdies from No. 11.
A double-bogey at No. 17 didn't derail Åberg, who made amends by playing the par-5 18th perfectly to tap in for a seventh birdie of the day.
“It was really fun playing with those two guys,” Åberg said. "Obviously the level of golf that they can do is pretty amazing and for me to watch that is pretty cool.
“I was kind of walking around and then almost pinched myself in the arm on the fairways but really enjoyed it, and proud of the way I handled it today.”
Hovland had a front-row seat to watch the guy many believe is golf's next big thing.
“Ludvig was certainly on a heater mid-round and the crowd was loving it,” Hovland said.
“He has not been a pro very long, but he certainly doesn’t look scared of the moment.”
Åberg, Hovland and McIlroy comprised one of the four groups made up entirely of Ryder Cup players as Donald looks to build some team chemistry.
In another setting out in the morning, Shane Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood both shot 69 alongside Sepp Straka (70).
Fitzpatrick, who went out with Robert MacIntyre and Justin Rose (both 72), played the best of the Ryder Cup squad after starting with four birdies in his first six holes. He curled in a birdie putt at the last from 18 feet to join Richie Ramsay in a tie for second place.
“I’m here to try to win this week,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ll start focusing on the Ryder Cup once Sunday finishes.”
They are all chasing the 26-year-old Helligkilde, who is coming to the end of his second season on the European tour.
His hot streak of early birdies began on the fourth hole, with two of them — on Nos. 5 and 7 — being tap-ins from inside 2 feet. He made birdie putts from 10 and 12 feet on Nos. 16 and 17, before getting up-and-down from just off the back of the 18th for a 10th birdie.
Helligkilde said he was hitting it “terrible” on the range.
“I asked (my coach), ‘What should I do?’” he said, “and he’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re probably going to play great.’ So that was what happened.”
AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf